Hapuka River Black Water Brownies, Westland, by Dick Marquand

The Hapuka River’s Black Water Brownies

The author with a Hapuka River brownie. A quick photograph and back it goes. Photo Aaron Horrell.

South Westland offers an incredible variety of experiences to anglers who are keen to pursue the wily brown trout

Whether it is casting a tiny dry fly or nymph on a clear mountain river, fishing a smelt pattern lure in the tidal reaches of a swamp-stained stream or trolling in a small lake, whatever your pleasure, South Westland can offer it, and more!

I have a passion for fishing the swamp-fed streams and rivers, those stained black with tannin and humic acid leached from coastal forests. Perhaps it is the peace and solitude I feel when fishing these waters, maybe it is the smell of the bush or the golden flanked brown trout that provide spectacular sport. I am sure that it is all these things, and more!

The Hapuka River is one of my favourite fishing locations. It is a typical “black water river” and contains some of the prettiest brown trout that I have ever seen. This river drains a vast coastal swamp forest located between the foothills of the Southern Alps and the sea. Lush native podocarp forest, scrub, flax and rushes fringe the margins of this extensive waterway. 

The Hapuka shares an estuarine lagoon with the Okuru River and Turnbull River before meeting the Tasman Sea. The lagoon and tidal reaches of the Okuru and Turnbull are a popular whitebaiting location during the season. This activity is prohibited in the Hapuka River where the tidal reaches give whitebait species access to the vast coastal swampland. Whitebait and mud crabs are the main diet of the “black water brownies” that frequent these dark stained waters. See also Whitebaiting in the Arawhata, Waiatoto, Turnbull, and Okuru Rivers.

The Okuru, Turnbull and Hapuka Rivers all empty into the same coastal lagoon. The position of the mouth changes when there is a big flood. Note the Hapuka Estuary Walkway featured in another article. Imagery courtesy of Terrametrics, DigitalGlobe, Google Earth 2017.

For many years, my wife and I have fished for brown trout in the Hapuka River from a drifting boat, casting small silver spoons, Rapala CD 5 minnows in the rainbow trout pattern or smelt pattern Taupo lures. The secret is to cast into the areas of sunken logs and branches or along the edge of the river, beneath the overhanging scrub and flax bushes.

Access to the best boat launching area is down a track that leads to the estuary, just behind the Haast Motor Camp. A half tide is required to launch and as the tide pushes in, excellent drift fishing is available for many kilometres up the Hapuka. As the tide recedes, I usually fish my way back down the river arriving back at the launching area when the tide is half out. This enables about five hours of fishing.

My boat is perfectly suited for this type of fishing. It is a 4.25-metre Stabi-Craft, powered by a 30 h.p. Johnson outboard motor. The carpet covered deck provides firm footing, the rigid pontoons provide the necessary stability and the uncluttered nature of the boat adds up to a perfect casting platform.

The water over which the boat passes varies in depth from half a metre to over eight metres, so careful navigation is required to avoid damaging the outboard propeller on the riverbed and submerged logs.

Rapala CD5 bibbed minnow.

A word of warning to those who intend to fish this fascinating water. Keep an ear open for idiots in jet boats. Despite a five-knot speed restriction which applies in this river, some selfish types have little respect for either the Water Recreation Regulations or the safety and pleasure of other resource users.

While on a recent fishing expedition to South Westland, I decided to treat my good friend Aaron Horrell to the delights of the Hapuka River. On a good day, one could expect to catch more than twenty brownies, on a bad day, perhaps only six fish. But hang on, any day out fishing is a good day – right? The fish are of course a bonus.

We arrived at the estuary, boat in tow, to find the tide too low to launch, so Aaron spent about half an hour casting lures around the Hapuka bridge. He had one follow from a brownie of perhaps a kilogram, however, it failed to take the small minnow. The day was a pearler, blue sky and threatening sunburn. The standing joke for South Westland is that you do not get a suntan, you just go rusty.

The Stabi-Craft was launched without incident and after carefully negotiating the shallow water we went out into the main river channel, under the bridge and headed upstream. l was sure that we would be in for a great day’s angling.

Aaron decided to use his Browning Hi-Power SG Speed Stick and Penn 4200 SS Spinfisher loaded with the brand new Penn Sovereign monofilament in the 4 lb breaking strength. I tackled up with my Penn Power Stick PSG 4760 and Penn 4200 SS loaded with 41b Penn Sovereign. Penn Sovereign monofilament is specifically manufactured for fishing on fixed spool reels. It is a brown colour, similar to Maxima Chameleon, perfectly suited for fishing the Hapuka River. Aaron tied on a Rapala CD3 in the rainbow trout pattern, while l decided on a 4-gram silver Krocodile spoon.

We cast out behind the boat, deciding to troll the lures until our first casting area was reached. Almost immediately, Aaron had a strike and quickly landed a yellow-eyed mullet. As we continued our way up the river, it became very obvious that there were many schools of mullet. These fish, some of them quite large as far as mullet are concerned, swam away from the boat as we made our way through the shallow water. A couple of nice sized black flounder sped away in a puff of sand as the boat approached them. A lot of people I have met are not too keen on eating black flounder on account of the greenish juice they exude while being cooked. I have no complaints about their eating qualities; I reckon that I could darn near live on them.

Aaron and I had a casting session at the confluence of Little Groper Creek. We both had a few follows but the trout did not appear to be all that hungry. Eventually, a long cast upstream produced a strike and after a brief but spectacular fight, I brought a golden flanked brownie of around 1.7kg to the net. The first fish of the day went into the icebox, destined for tea that night.

A good sized brownie sped away into the dark water, a spooked fish we would not be seeing again. Aaron is exceptionally accurate at casting lures; however l actually saw him cast his Rapala straight into the scrub close to the edge of the river, in fact, l had to drop him off onto the bank so that he could retrieve his precious Rapala.

He would not let me record this occasion on film. I did not feel so bad.

Drifting up the Hapuka, being pushed by the tide is a very pleasurable experience. The rich lush swamp forest is dominated by podocarps. Native orchids, ferns and other perching plants are prevalent on the tree trunks and branches, while fuchsia and flax dominate the understory. On this day, the area was rich in birdlife, mainly tuis and bellbirds which were feeding on the nectar from flowering flax and fuchsia bushes. The clumsy noisy flight of the native pigeons as they flushed from the bush at the river edge was an indication that they too were in good numbers.

Rapala Countdown CD5 (5cm in length).

The trout, however, were not in good numbers, or rather, we did not see the number of trout or get the strikes I have had on previous occasions. The trout were definitely ff the bite. We were getting the odd follow on lures cast into the inky depths where there were sunken logs and other cover.

The day warmed up and sunlight pierced the depths giving submerged logs and branches a spectre-like appearance as they passed beneath the boat.

By now, we were well up the Hapuka. It was narrow and crowded with trees and bushes overhanging the edges. The tide was a big one, flooding into the forest. We had tried all manner of lures: Rapala CD 3 and CD 5 minnows, Nilsmasters, RTB Legends, Rat-L-Traps and various silver spoons. We had a fish follow the lure but very few strikes and only one hook-up which I dropped almost instantly.

Drift Fishing on the Hapuka River. The scenery is fabulous.

The dreaded roaring sound of a V8 motor was a reality and less than a minute later, a big aluminium jet boat slewed into view and passed very close to the Stabi-Craft. I was not impressed and the verbal abuse that flowed from both Aaron and myself indicated so. The river is restricted to a 5-knot speed limit and to pass so close to us at speed was just plain bloody stupid. Perhaps five minutes later, the boat slewed back into view, roared past then came back to check us out. The boat operator was given a few comments that left him well aware of how I felt. Had a dinghy or a canoe been involved, the consequences could have been fatal.

The leaves and vegetation floating on the surface made fishing difficult so we headed back downstream with the falling tide to an area of snags that we knew held fish. I cast a small silver Dardevle spoon into the snags and was almost immediately rewarded with a solid hook-up. The brownie lugged it out but was no match for the Penn Power Stick.

Eventually, I was able to ease the trout close to the boat where it was netted. This fish was probably the best-conditioned brownie that I have ever caught in the Hapuka; its sides were speckled dark brown with the odd red spots against a golden brown. After a quick photograph, the 1.8kg brownie was released.

Aaron hooked up soon after on a small brownie that caught a hook just in front of the eye socket. After a short but spirited scrap, the red spotted hen was released none the worse for wear.

As we drifted back down the river, we both noticed that the schools of yellow-eyed mullet were prolific. When I cast and retrieved, they followed my lure but were not keen on taking it. By winding fast and stopping dead when I noticed a follow, a large yellow-eyed mullet was hooked in the mouth and landed. It measured over 33 centimetres in length and was retained for the “pot.”

Several black flounder scooted away from the approaching boat. One was so close that I could have speared it. A pair of mallards flushed from the rushes at the edge of the river. The water took on a murky appearance, so we decided to call it a day and head back to the launching area.

Three trout is the smallest number of fish I have ever seen landed while drift fishing the Hapuka. However, it certainly was not the worst day I have ever spent fishing. On the contrary, it was a day that I would remember with much pleasure. A special place on a special day fishing with the best of gear in great company. As we put the boat back onto the trailer, I felt a little sad at the thought of driving away from the Hapuka River and its “black water brownies.” I would have to return.

This red spotted brown trout hen was released none the worse for the experience. Photo Dick Marquand.

This post was last modified on 13/03/2024 4:16 pm

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